Williamson graduates as one of area’s best

Ryan Miller, Staff writer, Democrat and Chronicle, Winter 2013

Rich Saeger is the local swimming icon. The one who owned multiple Section V records. With the Olympic gold medal.

But it was Jeffrey Williamson who was on Rich Saeger’s radar four years ago, not the other way around.

Williamson was a middle-schooler in Carmel, Ind., who swam with the son of Saeger’s old college friend.

“He told me about Jeffrey, saying that he’s really good and is moving to Rochester,” said Saeger, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist who lives in Irvine, Calif. “I noticed he was doing well and improving, so I heard his name before he probably heard of mine.”

That name has replaced Saeger’s in the record books.

The Victor senior broke the 33-year-old sectional record in the 100-yard freestyle — set by Saeger as a sophomore at Penfield — at the New York State prelims.

“I forwarded the article to my buddy right away. He thought it was great and funny,” said Saeger, who swam the preliminary races on the 800 freestyle relay team at the 1984 Olympics. “I didn’t mind. Those records are made to be broken.”

“He’s a legend in the swimming world around here. I always saw the Olympic rings by his name at the Webster pool and that was always cool for me as a goal and aspiration,” said the contemplative and reverent Williamson, who is the All-Greater Rochester Swimmer of the Year for the third time in a row. “It made the experience better looking at the scoreboard and seeing all of Section V cheering and reminded me that maybe it’s within my reach to achieve the ultimate goal to become an Olympian one day.”

Williamson reached the ultimate high school goal and moved on to more prestigious records the next day in the state finals.

He capped the season with public school titles and state records in the 100 (44.73 seconds) and 200 freestyles (1:36.82). The latter was a sought-after Federation crown and both earned him Automatic All-American accolades.

Williamson finished his career with 15 Class B titles, eight team records and four state championships. He also previously held the all-time sectional marks in the 500 freestyle and 200 individual medley.

So how good is Williamson?

“You can debate generation gaps in every sport and compare decade to decade. But he broke what was considered the toughest record (100 free), not only in our section but in the state,” said Rich Schmitt, Class A chair and member of the Section V Swimming and Diving Hall of Fame committee. “The older coaches thought we’d never see that record broken. I’d rank him as probably the greatest swimmer in Section V history. He means so much to the section and that Victor team.”

The feeling is mutual. Williamson has lived all over the country and world. He finally found a place he can call home. Williamson will enroll at Princeton at the end of the summer, the same time his parents will pack up and move near San Francisco. But he plans on returning to Rochester in the summers to train and stay.

“I’ve received a ton of support from a sport that doesn’t usually get a ton at the high school level,” Williamson said. “I’ve been blessed by the Victor community. I really love it here.”

Williamson trains every day but Sunday. Each evening consists of 2 1/2

The feeling is mutual. Williamson has lived all over the country and world. He finally found a place he can call home. Williamson will enroll at Princeton at the end of the summer, the same time his parents will pack up and move near San Francisco. But he plans on returning to Rochester in the summers to train and stay.

“I’ve received a ton of support from a sport that doesn’t usually get a ton at the high school level,” Williamson said. “I’ve been blessed by the Victor community. I really love it here.”

Williamson trains every day but Sunday. Each evening consists of 2 1/2 to 3 grueling hours of practice, a half-hour of running and lifting weights and the rest in the pool. In addition, he wakes up at 4:30 a.m. on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays for another hour-and-a-half session before school. At fifty weeks per year and 20 hours per week, the amphibious Williamson spends about 10 percent of his life with his face in the water.

Some days it’s painful for him to walk up stairs. It’s agonizing to sit in a chair or lie in bed, so relaxing doesn’t provide comfort either.

“It’s very physically and mentally demanding. It’s a weird love-hate relationship. You’re in all this pain and stress, yet —at the same time — don’t ever want to stop,” Williamson said. “It’s an obsession with the sport. My innate nature is to work hard so I never feel like I’ve done enough.”

Until he thought he may have had enough. In the fall, Williamson was at a crossroads in deciding if he wanted to continue with the commitment and grind of swimming at an elite level in high school and college.

“It was one of those burnout moments. I had never felt that way before. I’d been swimming for 10 years and was ready to move on. I just wasn’t enjoying it anymore and that was a bitter pill to swallow,” Williamson said. “Then I realized why I swim. Not for the records or medals. It’s to release my mind of stress. The year I didn’t care as much about the end results is the year I had the best results.

“My state records will be broken and forgotten but I’m left with the memories and experience. ... The way it ended couldn’t have been more perfect. I was in a slump and valley and ended at a peak with the best year I had. Looking back, that’s what made it special.”